Symphysiotomy: Chainsaws were originally invented to assist childbirth – Screen Shot
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Symphysiotomy: Chainsaws were originally invented to assist childbirth

You know what chainsaws are, right? That big electric metal tool that is kind of pointy? The one that cuts through wood? Well, guess what? They weren’t invented for the wood, but for the womb. Simply put, chainsaws were originally invented for assisting childbirth. You’re probably clenching your legs together after reading that. I definitely am. Giving birth already seems like an unpleasant experience—to put it lightly.With a chainsaw you’ve got a horror movie. I’m thinking, Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

According to Popular Science, chainsaws were invented during the 18th century by two Scottish surgeons John Aitken and James Jeffray. Prior to the advancement of medical procedures like caesarean sections (considered dangerous due to the risk of infection), access to anaesthesia (it wasn’t perfect at the time) and other tools, babies had to be born naturally—duh, right? However, babies can sometimes get their limbs stuck in parts of the pelvic on their way out. The solution to this problem was defined as a ‘symphysiotomy’ at the time.

This was a medical procedure that involved cutting and removing some bone and cartilage in order to widen the birth canal during complicated births. Before the invention of the chainsaw, doctors would conduct this procedure with a regular saw (small in size) and a knife. Without anaesthesia. This would have proved a tortuous process for the soon-to-be mother, if she even made it that far. Sorry, that was morbid, but it’s the 1780s and they’re literally cutting bones out.


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♬ original sound - Dr. Theron Sherman

It was because of this obviously horrifying experience for the woman giving birth that Aitken and Jeffray began the development of their chainsaw—they were actually trying to make the cutting process easier, quicker and thus lessening the agony. The first model of the chainsaw consisted of a long chain with serrated teeth with handles on either end. While wrapped around the pelvic bone, doctors would alternately pull on each handle. This recurring movement outperformed the knife and was much faster in slicing through bone. This was later ‘improved’ through the addition of ‘hand crank,’ allowing the chain to rotate and thus becoming more like the chainsaw we know today.

Mental Floss wrote “Thanks to this innovation, difficult births could be described as merely agonising as opposed to extended torture.” Given the effectiveness of the device in cutting through bone, it remained in use through much of the 19th century—not only for childbirth but for other medical circumstances like amputation. Thankfully symphysiotomy is now an outdated surgical procedure.

All jokes aside, we can talk about how uncomfortable it makes us feel or how ridiculously shocking it is but at the end of the day there are real victims of symphysiotomy. Real women were put through an incredibly torturous and scarring process and they weren’t all from the 18th century. There have been horrifying accounts that over 1,500 women in the Republic of Ireland were unknowingly ‘symphysiotomically’ operated on without their consent between 1944 and 1987. That’s less than 40 years ago. Reports have suggested that this was largely encouraged and conducted by the Catholic Church—which reportedly preferred the method over cesareans. 

Victims of the practice, mother and daughter, Matilda Behan and Bernadette founded the organisation Survivors of Symphysiotomy (SOS) in 2002. The group later gained momentum and caught the attention of the Irish Human Rights Commission. In 2008, the commission advised the government to set up an independent inquiry into the medical scandal—but the Minister of Health refused.

However, 2012 proved to be a marker of success for SOS and the survivors seeking justice. SOS cited the example of Olivia Kearney who was “awarded 325,000 euros in her court case against Doctor Gerard Connolly—who performed a post-caesarean section symphysiotomy on her in 1969. The court ruled that in 1969, symphysiotomies were no longer approved.” 

While the procedure is still being used in some countries, the number of symphysiotomies as a whole is on the decline. Let’s keep the chainsaws for cutting down trees, shall we? Or better yet don’t use it at all. We’re in the middle of a climate emergency anyway.

3 ways we can fight for women’s rights all year round (not just on IWD)

Another International Women’s Day (IWD) has gone and people of all genders have expressed their solidarity in the fight for gender equality through events, panels and social media campaigns. Hashtags have been posted, flowers gifted, chants sung and an empowering sense of support has taken over for the duration of Sunday 8 March—or at least that’s how it felt within my echo chamber. But just like last year or after any IWD, as soon as the celebration ends, I always find myself struggling to feel wholly satisfied.

After IWD, it is important that we remind ourselves of the objectives of the day, the feminist purposes and the conversations that everyone should bring forward beyond one single day in order to make sure that the fight for gender justice is a continuous, challenging and ever-evolving one. Here’s what we should all work towards to make IWD a year-long project.

1. Let’s keep it ‘intersectional’

In order to stay alert and make sure the movement for gender justice remains vigilant, inclusive and effective, we must keep it intersectional. By looking at the convergence between systems of oppression and domination, intersectional feminism looks at the unique experiences of individuals while taking into consideration notions of gender, race, ethnicity, class, disability and sexuality.

Not only should POC and gender non-conforming individuals be welcomed within the feminist agenda, but their battle for equal rights should also inform the future of the movement. Feminism is about inclusion and fighting against the discrimination of any individuals and communities struggling under the patriarchy, which means intersectional feminism is the only way forward.

2. Let us not forget the violence

According to the reports released by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), one out of three women has experienced sexual violence at least once in their lives. Three out of five women who have been murdered are killed by their partner or a family member, and worldwide, 15 million girls under the age of 19 have experienced forced sex.

The systemic violence against women and trans people is enabled by a legal and socio-cultural system that has, for too long, denied its responsibility in causing this violence. While each nation has had very different experiences, violence against women is an on-going problem across the world.

By promoting an intersectional agenda, the Argentinian fourth-wave grassroots feminist movement Ni Una Menos has in the past few years occupied squares, taught in schools and churches and connected unions to mobilise and create networks to oppose the killing and violence against women across communities.

The American philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler wrote in her new book The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political: “The act of violence enacts the social structure, and the social structure exceeds each of the acts of violence by which it is manifested and reproduced. These are losses that should not have happened, that should never happen again: Ni Una Menos.” Even after IWD, we must make sure that this ingrained violence, as well as toxic masculinity, are increasingly challenged through education first and foremost.

3. From 16.3 per cent to zero

In Europe alone, the average gender pay gap is 16.3 per cent. Women earn impressively less than men and therefore have to work harder in order to make the same amount as their male counterparts. Positions of power are always harder to reach, and the tension between domestic life and career is a struggle that keeps interfering within women’s lives.

In order to build a more inclusive society, women must be as present as men in the social, political and economic structures that form our world. Founder and CEO of Make Love Not Porn Cindy Gallop, who is also a prominent voice for the equality of all genders within the workplace wrote on Facebook: “On #InternationalWomensDay and every other day, don’t use words like ’empower’ and ‘celebrate’. Use words like ‘hire’, ‘promote’, ‘pay’, ‘raise’, ‘bonus’, ‘fund’, ‘invest in’, ‘enrich’, ‘elect’, ‘lead’—and don’t just say it, DO IT,” highlighting the need for more than a once-a-year ‘celebration’.

Days like 8 March are important, but only if they function as momentum for an ongoing, shared project. Let’s not leave this IWD as yet another unfinished conversation. Let’s make sure that this conversation carries on, that the objectives remain clear and that the required changes are soon delivered.